A great smoky mountain

There is something inexplicably tranquil about Seattle. It’s not unemotional — quite the contrary in fact — but it’s been the only place where my mind can detach itself from the furor of my current job. Although I visited it this year already, I reasoned that if I drove six hours each way in my various Stuttgart excursions that I should also be able to fly six hours across the country, so I set off for the airport at 3 AM one Friday in late September to put my workaholism on hold for 72 hours.

As usual, the mountain beckoned.

I arrived in Paradise on Friday afternoon and immediately set off for Mazama Ridge, but this time the trees weren’t draped in snow. I’ve been wanting to see a sunset (or sunrise) from the hills overlooking the visitor center for a few years now and found a spot where I’d be able to gulp down a cold dinner and smile to myself as the sun set. With the wildflower season over, smoke from the forest fires, and clouds out to the west, I didn’t get the color show I was hoping for, but I was thrilled to be at the mountain again regardless.


I hiked back down to Paradise and set off for my night stop at Tipsoo Lake. It’s a surprisingly accessible reflection pond for Rainier, and at sunrise with the right clouds the mountain positively lights up beautifully. On Friday night, I could see the stars above me but there was heavy ash from the forest fire drifting around me; I set an alarm for sunrise and called it a night. The next morning, I could see no stars and no mountain: the entire area was bathed in fog.


This was a bit of a bummer but nothing unexpected: two of the four times I had driven to Tipsoo in 2007, I was met with the same conditions. After a quick breakfast, I pondered what I’d see when I drove to Sunrise. It had been over five years since I visited this part of the park; at 6400 feet, it’s the highest area accessible by car and also shuts down in early October due to the tremendous snowfall at that elevation. Given that I was driving in clouds or fog and the forecast was for clouds and even rain, I didn’t have high hopes for seeing too much at Sunrise, either — but somewhere around 6,000 ft, I broke out of the greyness and into unexpected sunshine. When the mountain isn’t visible from Seattle, sometimes it’s only because the clouds hang somewhere between sea level and the 14,410 ft summit of the thing. Luck had it that Sunrise was above cloud level the day I ventured up there.


I had decided that rather than attempt Third Burroughs on my own, I’d do an easy hike to Mount Fremont. It’s one of two fire lookouts on the north side of the park (the other being Tolmie Peak; on clear days it’s said it’s possible to see Puget Sound.  Given Charleston’s relative proximity to the Smoky Mountains, you’d think that I would have visited them already… instead, on a day when I couldn’t even see Seattle, I saw them from Mount Fremont.



After having done Second Burroughs and now Mount Fremont, I still think the Burroughs offer better views and a closer, more personal experience with Rainier — though this takes nothing away from the incredible beauty of the mountain from its east side. People go to Paradise because it’s more accessible and has incredible wildflower displays, but in my opinion it’s the hikes originating from Sunrise that offer a truer glimpse of the splendor and majesty of Rainier, the Mountain. Even with the haze of the forest fires, the views were still spectacular.


After lunch, I moved quickly back toward Sunrise, thinking I’d get the chance to also hit Dege Peak (which also offers a commanding view of Rainier and the mountains surrounding it). Right around Frozen Lake, however, a couple from Chicago informed me there was a black bear by the trail up to the Burroughs — odd place for a bear, I thought, given the proximity to people and lack of significant food. Nevertheless, there it was, eating berries and occasionally taking note that a crowd had gathered 100 yards away to watch it munch. It was typically good planning on my part: I brought my telephoto zoom with me but left it in the car. I had to work with my normal hiking zoom (the Canon 17-55) and wondered a few times whether it’d be worth it to book it to my car and back for a tighter shot. I didn’t think the bear would stay still for that long, so mostly grinned at it for an hour before heading back to the parking lot.


Overall, it was a successful trip even though my sunrise and sunset photo attempts were again thwarted. I was finally able to avoid thinking about work (until a co-worker prank-texted me and told me my assembly line had been down for two days), and I got to check out a part of the park I had only seen in winter and another I hadn’t seen before — all while seeing a bear in the wild for the first time. As usual, it was with some regret that I walked into Sea-Tac. As I found my way to the gate, I also began worrying that I wouldn’t be able to see the mountain from the side of plane I had chosen — I was even planning to ask the person sitting in 35A if I could switch window seats with him. Finding him fast asleep when I boarded, I anxiously waited for takeoff and braced myself for the understanding that quite possibly I wouldn’t see the mountain again until my next visit.


Then, after climbing out of the clouds, I was startled to see a familiar lump out of my window. When I flew away from Seattle for the first time sixteen years ago, the captain of the United Airlines flight I was on announced that we’d be able to see Mt. Rainier out of the left side of the plane… it was fitting that United Airlines again brought me an aerial view of the rock, but most important to me at the time was being able to sleep well for the next four hours after seeing it outside of the right side of the plane this time around.


Note to all my friends from Seattle reading this: frankly I feel pretty awkward about not letting you know I was planning on visiting. I only had Friday night and Saturday to be in Seattle and thought that I’d take the time to get Rainier out of my system rather than rush catching up with you all. As long as my selfishness in doing so hasn’t offended you completely, I promise I’m more than happy and will consequently be back again to visit Seattle for its people rather than its mountains. ;-)

A great smoky mountain

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